There are few clubs in European football that added more young talent to their squad over the course of the transfer window than Borussia Dortmund. Emre Mor, Marc Bartra, Ousmane Dembélé, Mikel Merino and Raphaël Guerreiro joined established domestic players Mario Götze, Sebastien Rode and André Schürrle in becoming part of Thomas Tuchel’s squad.
Harnessing all of the attacking talent at his disposal would be one of the main challenges for Tuchel as he started his second full season in charge of the club.
Even in the early stages of the season, we have seen inconsistencies from Dortmund, with the loss to RB Leipzig in particular showing teething problems with integrating these new faces into the starting line-up. Recent signs, however, have been far more promising.
Next up was a home game against Darmstadt in the Bundesliga.
Tuchel chose to start with a young forward line as American international Christian Pulisic lined up on the right of the attack with French youngster Ousmane Dembélé on the left side flanking Colombian forward Adrián Ramos.
We also saw a continuation of the experiment with Raphaël Guerreiro starting in the centre of midfield as opposed to his more familiar left-back role. There are reports that Tuchel and his staff identified the versatile profile of Guerreiro as soon as they got him training with the first team after his Euro 2016 victory with Portugal.
Darmstadt, on the other hand, made little in the way of notable changes and lined up in their now familiar 5-4-1 system to try to counteract the attacking threat and pace of Dortmund.
I tend to have a fairly regular format when compiling these analysis articles and rarely does a section heading refer to one player alone. In the case of the young German midfielder Julian Weigl, I am happy to make an exception.
When Weigl joined Dortmund at the start of last season from 1860 Munich there was little fanfare from the media, although the signs were there that Dortmund had unearthed someone special.
The youngster very quickly went from a development project to a first choice midfielder as Tuchel became enamoured with his strategic mind and technical qualities. Weigl now forms part of a triumvirate of exciting German midfield prospects along with Mahmoud Dahoud and Joshua Kimmich.
One of the biggest qualities that Weigl brings to Dortmund is the range and accuracy of his passing along with his tendency to play the ball forward and through the defensive lines wherever possible. Weigl is constantly available to take possession of the ball from his team-mates and finds pockets of space to give him the maximum time available.
Here we see his preference for playing the ball forwards into areas in which his team-mates can cause maximum danger for the opposition.
Instead of playing the easy pass in front of or around the Darmstadt midfield block, he chooses instead to play the through ball between the midfield line. This pass causes chaos in the defensive structure of Darmstadt as the man taking possession of the ball is able to turn and threaten the defensive line.
There are too many young midfield players in today’s game that prefer to play the short and safe pass in front of the opposition to maintain their pass completion rate and keep possession of the ball. Players like Weigl buck that trend.
This time, it is not so much the pass that is the key aspect of the play from Weigl but his ability to understand space and provoke the opposition into making a mistake.
From picking the ball up in a central area Weigl dribbles horizontally, shielding the ball from the Darmstadt pressure. As he crosses into the right half space, he triggers two other Darmstadt players to move up to apply pressure. This simple movement attracts the opposition players out of their more solid defensive position and creates space behind the pressure.
Weigl is simply able to drop the ball off to his right-back who accesses the space with a vertical pass to the more advanced right winger.
One of the more important aspects of the Dortmund system under Thomas Tuchel is the movement and interchanging of positions across the midfield and forward strata.
Against Darmstadt we saw this in abundance with the movement in particular of Portuguese international Guerreiro. When Guerreiro was signed from Lorient of France, it was primarily as a left-back who could provide competition to Marcel Schmelzer, but with the understanding that he would also be able to fill a more advanced role on the left wing should the need arise.
Instead, we have seen Guerreiro move infield to operate as a more traditional number 8, using his ability in tight situations to resist the opposition’s press and keep the ball circulating.
Here we can see the benefits of having a natural left-sided player in the centre of the pitch. Guerreiro drops into the left half space to receive the ball. This deeper position allows Dembélé to come off the left wing to offer a vertical passing option in the same lane as Guerriero and for Schmelzer to advance down the left flank to offer width and a further passing option.
This intelligence in movement and positioning is essential to allow the rest of the Dortmund players to flow in and out of space.
This example is slightly different. As the play is being built up in the middle third on the far side of the field, Guerreiro drops into the left side and allows Dembélé to move centrally.
Guerreiro is disciplined enough tactically to understand that he needs to maintain the wide position to stretch the opposition defence and create space for Dembele moving centrally into a more advanced position.
Another of the key tactical characteristics of Dortmund under Tuchel has been the preference for vertical passing between the defensive block and into pockets of space between the lines.
In this example, you can see a Dortmund player take up a high position in an area of space between the defensive line and the midfield line of Darmstadt. While the man in the space highlighted is relatively inaccessible for the man in possession due to the positioning of a Darmstadt player, there are three easy passing options that will allow Dortmund to access the space.
Any pass played around or in front of the opponents’ defensive block forces a reaction in terms of defensive positioning. Dortmund are extremely adept at manipulating the defensive positioning of the opposition team to access the pockets of space that allow them to play in advanced areas.
By positioning not only between the two lines but between the centre-back and the full-back, they have maximised the space and given themselves a platform in an advanced area from which to attack.
We see a simple pass from Weigl above that allows a team-mate to turn and play into an empty space in an advanced area. As Weigl advances with the ball he can identify the poor structure and organisation from Darmstadt. He has the quality and the ability to play the ball into the feet of a team-mate through the lines of what little defensive structure exists.
The player receiving possession in this area is then able to turn and attack the large space that has been left by the disorganised opposition.
There are definite signs now that the new players that were signed in the summer by Dortmund are starting to adapt and feel comfortable in the system preferred by Tuchel. The attacking movement and combinations in the attacking phase of play are starting to truly the defensive organisation of their opponents.
Whether Dortmund can be as effective defensively remains to be seen, but with so many young and exciting talents playing in yellow and black, I would urge anyone to see them play while they still can.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis